‘Can’t look away’: Northern lights shine bright over Vancouver Island Sunday

'Can't look away': Northern lights shine bright over Vancouver Island Sunday
Photo: Vanille Tronche
Tofino's Vanille Tronche used her iPhone to capture this photo of aurora borealis. She says she snapped the photo around midnight Monday, Feb. 27, 2023.

The night sky turned into a canvas of bright, colourful, dancing lights when aurora borealis once again appeared above parts of British Columbia, to the onlooker’s delight.

Several people across Vancouver Island captured photos of the luminous display Sunday night through early Monday morning, including newcomer Vanille Tronche in Tofino. 

“The dock has a view of Meares Island, just in front of Tofino. It was just coming from behind,” said Tronche, who moved to the west-Island town about three months ago with her partner, Stephane. “It’s still new, and we got to see the northern lights already.”

Hailing from France, it was a never-before-seen spectacle for the pair. So around midnight, Tronche pulled out her iPhone and took photos of the greenish-purple hues before posting them to Facebook, where she was met with a flood of positive reactions.

“To be honest, I’m French, so in Europe, we don’t see these at all. I was really surprised,” Tronche told CHEK News. “It was really nice to see. Hard to see with the naked eye, but it was green and really intense.”

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(Tofino’s Vanille Tronche used her iPhone to capture this photo of aurora borealis. Feb. 2023.)

Karun Thanjavur, an astronomy lab instructor at the University of Victoria, seconds that, saying it’s best to have a camera in hand when searching for the lights. Clear, dark skies are also ideal, as clouds and sunlight are the biggest obstacles to observation.

“To see the northern lights from Victoria with the naked eye is challenging. The lights are fairly faint, so it’s better with a camera with long exposure,” said Thanjavur. “But with the naked eye, it’s quite challenging. You can see a faint-greenish hue sometimes.” 

On the other side of the Island, Nanaimo’s Stephen Maas snapped photos of the lights sometime between midnight and 3 a.m. Though, unlike Tronche, it wasn’t his first time spotting the display in person.

“Many times, many times,” said Maas. “It’s probably about the 15th time on Vancouver Island, but I lived and worked up north for a while and saw them up there too.”

Leaning his iPhone against a metal pole at Neck Point Park, he also used a cell phone to capture the images, which he later posted to Facebook and was met with applause. After all, it’s a sight he’s always amazed by, despite already seeing it numerous times.

“It’s one of those things you can’t look away from,” exclaimed Maas.

READ ALSO: Gabriola photographer captures northern lights Saturday night

(Nanaimo’s Stephen Maas used his iPhone to capture this photo of aurora borealis. Feb. 2023.)

Yet, Thanjavur says the lights are seldom seen from Vancouver Island, given the region’s distance from the north pole where they’re predominantly spotted. 

“It is definitely a rare event because we are a fair distance from the north pole, and the northern lights, as the name indicates, are definitely visible in the northern latitudes. So closer to the pole is where you have the really spectacular displays,” he said. “Up in Yellowknife and Whitehorse, I’m sure they see it very often.”

According to Thanjavur, geomagnetic storms cause the lights. Eruptions from the sun’s surface throw high-energy particles into space, which travel at high speeds and can reach the earth in just days. 

“These are damaging particles and they’re travelling at high energy. But because we have a magnetic field around the earth, it acts as a shield that deflects these particles. All of which are charged, so they react,” he explained. “They collide with the atoms in the earth’s atmosphere, exciting these atoms and remitting them as light. There are some very characteristic lights and colours associated with these gases.”

Pink, red, blue and green are hues linked to the northern lights. Green is most commonly seen from the ground and it’s produced when charged particles collide with oxygen molecules 100-300 kilometres high, according to the Canadian Space Agency (CSA).

That’s what keeps Parksville’s Wendy Kotorynski amazed.

Starting around 10 p.m. Sunday, she, like Tronche and Maas, began adding to her nighttime photography collection after grabbing her Sony camera and heading to Community Beach, where she set up her tripod and clicked away for about five hours.

“I’m an avid night-sky photographer, and I follow space weather on a daily basis and know how to read the signs as to when it’s a good time to get off the couch and go out,” said Kotorynski. “It’s just absolutely spectacular. You never get over it. You can see them over and over. They’re always different and it’s just incredible.”

Though Thanjavur’s never seen the lights in person, he highlights the sun’s recent activity and says stargazers should anticipate seeing them more and more.

“This year, the sun has been really active with lots of these geomagnetic storms happening,” he added. “We’ve had a lot of activity this year and so, a greater chance of seeing northern lights, even from a place like Victoria or Vancouver Island.”

The CSA has northern lights viewing tips online, and those who missed out Sunday may be in luck as the University of Alaska’s aurora forecast remains “high” for most of Canada.

(Parksville’s Wendy Kotorynski used her Sony camera to capture this photo of aurora borealis. Feb. 2023.)

Ethan MorneauEthan Morneau

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